For the season of leaves changing color in Japan, most Thai people would choose to travel in November or early December. This is because it is a time when the big cities like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka are beautiful and to get there is not difficult because the public car is mostly accessible ... But for me, I especially like the natural landscape. Therefore, I'm looking for a place to see the leaves changing color in the mountains rather than in the temples or shrines that most of them are crowed with a big group of people during this festival.
And then, 22-29 October has been selected as travel time because it is a holiday, thus, it help save some leave days for salary man like me.... And this time is the perfect time to see the leaves changing colors for many mountains in Japan like Tōhoku region which is on the north of Honshu Island. But since I had visited once in 2014, this trip I choose the area near the Japan Alps instead. The first part of the review will be on this region. Karuizawa is my hub. Then, I rent a car and drive to the nearby area. This trip is a combination of lost, frustration and disappointment. Please come and follow me if you are ready!
Before we start our journey, please follow me below:
Like many of my previous abroad trip, my journey starts from Phuket and connect another flight from Suvarnabhumi Airport. One difficulty is that if I'm traveling out with morning early flight, I must come from Phuket one day in advance. Because if I choose to leave Phuket early in the morning, then connect to the flight afterwards, it is quite risky for missing the connected flight in case the first flight was delayed ... So, here is a task for me. If I were to find a place to stay in the city, it would waste time coming early in the morning anyway and I think it could be as tired as coming directly from Phuket. I used to try the boxtel in the airport and couldn't sleep well because I heard the announcement at the airport all night. Having staying a little away from the airport, I still faced the same problem which is the noise from cars running the whole night.... So then, I try the hotel airport. At first I was worried that I might be disturbed by noises again..... But... when I stay at Novotel Suvarnabhumi Airport, it is very comfortable. The room is spacious and quiet. I have a really good rest. Although the price is higher than a smaller accommodation near the airport, if compared to the standards and services, it is considered worth the price.
On the travel day, after the full breakfast at the hotel, we take the shuttle bus service and get off at the entrance near the check in counter of Hong Kong Airlines. We will transit at Hong Kong first before flying to Narita Airport of Japan.
Since we stayed in the airport, check in early is not that tiring. What's more, the girls are very happy as they have more time shopping in duty free shops (let make them happy first before taking them into forest, hehe).... After finishing shopping, we come to wait for boarding.
Traveling from Bangkok to Hong Kong is not far. It takes only two and a hour hours. Passengers are quite full... It is my first time flying with Hong Kong Airlines.
The safety demonstration of Hong Kong Airlines use cartoon movie which is really cute. I think this is the only airline using cartoon movie. We can watch it from the LCD screen in front of our seats.
Very lucky that today the sky is clear (after the typhoon has just gone hours ago), so I get to fully enjoy the view from the window and another set of breakfast (one more time on board, haha). I have a chicken Green Curry which I think it tastes more like Red Curry. Nonetheless, it tastes really good.
Hong Kong airport is another example that I like about space management. Because the transportation system is brought down to underground, allowing the surface area can be used as a road for taxing the aircraft. In addition, the area looks clear and neat. At the hall walking to the gate is also quite airy.
My flight from Hong Kong to Narita is in the afternoon. The flight time is about 4 hours which is a bit longer than the previous flight. When the flight take off, I see the new bridge connecting Hong Kong to Macau. I have to say that I was stunned by its greatness. The bridge is stretching endlessly, about 50 km long. I think it will finish soon. I'm not sure if this will be considered as a new wonder of the modern world or not.
Soon, I also get to see the last light from the sky and I just love it so much.
We land at Narita airport as scheduled..... After getting our baggage and going through immigration process, we go out to wait for the shuttle bus of Narita Gateway Hotel that we have booked.... According to the plan, we will come back to the airport again to exchange the JR pass bought from Thailand. It is the JR East Pass (for Nagano, Niigata). We can use it for 5 days noncontinuous within 15 days.
We wait for the shuttle bus at the sign number 26. The shuttle bus will come every 30 minutes and run from the morning until 11 p.m. (depending on the terminal). It takes only about 15 minutes from the airport to Narita Gateway. It is a good choice for people looking for accommodation near the airport to either taking a morning flight or arriving late at night and can not exchange the JR Pass on time. More importantly, the price of Narita Gateway's room is not expensive.
After breakfast, we take the shuttle bus that we have booked when we checked in and go back to Narita airport again... When arriving at the terminal, seeing a long queue, I know that this is the line we must queue up to exchange for the JR Pass.
After everyone having our own JR Pass, we take the Narita Express (NEX) into Tokyo and then taking the Shinkansen to Karuizawa, our first 3 nights accommodation city. Just by today travel, I think our JR Pass is already worth the price.
I choose Karuizawa to be our accommodation and transportation hub because it is not far from Tokyo. We can reach here using our JR Pass by Shinkansen within about an hour. Also, there's a big Outlet with lots of shops both international and local brands. More importantly, this Karuizawa prince Shopping Plaza Outlet is right beside the JR station..... You can get out off the station and start shopping right away.... For tourist attractions in town, in addition to the Outlet and beautiful road, there's also this Kumoba pond where it's full of leaves changing color in late October and early November of every year. Moreover, you can also travel conveniently to natural tourist attractions and Onsen from the nearby city like Gunma and Nagano.
The atmosphere at JR Karuizawa … On the left is the Outlet called Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza.
Another very important thing is that Karuizawa Prince Hotel West has such a great atmosphere . It rests in the mist of pine and maple garden. The room is also spacious and cheaper than the same class accommodation in Tokyo. This kind of atmosphere is considered to be a dream hotel. The key is, it is also next to the Outlet due to they both are owned by the same owner. And that is the reason why we stay here 3 nights straight.
The most convenient part is where there's a service center for the hotel guests at the entrance of the Outlet. We can leave our luggage here while shopping around. In addition, the shuttle bus running between the hotel and the Outlet is also just meters away. Here comes the conclusion, this place is a paradise for a shopper lover.
Here is a guest service center which is located right at the entrance of the Outlet... so convenient.
Shuttle bus stop which is only meters away from the guest service center.
But our mission is to go for red leaves.....Then, we deposit our luggage and walk across the street to find a bicycle rental to tour around Karuizawa. The destination is the Kumoba pond, which is Karuizawa's famous public pond.
Our cycling route to Kamoba pond is beautiful and shady.
We continue cycling using the navigator from our mobile phone. This trip, we use a pocket WIFI from WIFI Bank. The signal is no different from other brands because they are using the same network. Devices and applications are also similar. But I think this brand is accountable as they are very quick in response to our questions and our need.
Back to our cycling.... Karuizawa city is considered a new city. The house is beautiful, neat, clean and quite different from the typical houses of Japanese people. I would even say that the mood is like houses in Europe.This is because here is a vacation get away town. The decorations of houses and shops thus look particularly cute.
The closer we approach the Kumoba pond, the more we begin to see big vacation house of the Japanese millionaire. These houses are surrounded by pine and maple garden which, if the leaves change color at the same time, it would be a breathtaking scene ... but this year it looks like leaves changing color in Karuizawa comes later than usual. At the end of October last year, leaves has already changed to full color. This year, only some trees show off their colorful leaves.
We continue cycling until we reach Kumoba Pond which welcomes quite a crowd of tourists. Like expected, leaves around the pond has yet changed much of their color just like the ones in the city. Nevertheless, overall atmosphere is still very beautiful and impressive....I spend quite a quality time capturing atmosphere around the pond.
After that, we go back to return our rental bicycle and along the way, we stop to capture the atmosphere of Karuizawa from time to time.
In the evening, we check in to the cottage room style at Karuizawa Prince Hotel West ... The room is a wooden house (I don't want to use the word cottage because the size is not as small as cottage in Thai farm). It is located in a nice atmosphere surrounded by pine and maple trees. The interior is decorated with pine, making it look warm and relaxing. Besides two bedrooms, there is also a living room with a table for socializing. It is very suitable for families or groups of friends traveling together. Even though house looks really huge, the price when dividing out per room is more economical than a narrow single room in Tokyo. I think using Karuizawa as a tourist center and staying at Karuizawa Prince Hotel West is a good choice and totally worth it.
That night we enjoy our shopping without having to worry about time because our hotel is right by the Outlet and the shuttle bus runs until the Outlet closes.
Well, we can really walk all day for this Outlet.
The next morning, we wake up to capture the surrounding atmosphere again in fresh....Today, the weather is cool and comfortable, the sky is clear, making our photography time is so enjoyable. Then, our program starts much later than we had planned.
Waking up to see this atmosphere, how could we resist, right? Here we go, photography time.
Here is our room.
Everyone loves the first breakfast at Karuizawa Prince Hotel due to the variety of food and fine ingredients. We all eat quite a lot.....Well, I've never seen thick bacon and ham like this before, it's so good.
From the hotel, we walk to the front of the train station to pick up a car at Nissan's car rental center, which is not difficult to find. It is only 1-2 minutes away from the train station ... We rent a Nissan Wing Road. The interior is spacious, 5 people can sit comfortably and there is a large rear luggage area. From what I see, I think it can take up to 4-5 of 24 inches luggage. So if anyone is looking for a rental car at a moderate price and has luggage storage space, this model is probably a good choice. For the rental fare, it is 7,722 JPY per day or about 2,625 THB by booking through toocoo ... Oh, booking through this website, there's additional service charge of 810 JPY per day too. But even including all this, it is still cheaper than booking directly with the company website.
We start our trip about an hour later than planned. Our first destination is Megane-bashi Bridge (location 36.35805, 138.69827) which is not so far away from Karuizawa. We drive around the hillside for a while and then the parking lot of the Megane Bridge is clearly visible. From here, we walk along the road for about 5 minutes to see the brick bridge towering over the road ...
Unfortunately, the leaves here just started to change color. So we are only able to capture the bridge over the bright green mountains instead. If we come here a few weeks later, it probably is in the midst of golden yellow mountains.
Walking up to see the view on the bridge, the scenery is quite beautiful.
After spending quite a quality time here, we walk back... Our next destination is Fukiwar Falls located in Gunma Prefecture (location 36.70191, 139.20687). We decide to go on the expressway in order to make our trip quicker. But then, the problem happens. When the GPS directed us to get down from the expressway, we cannot exit due to it's only allowed for the ETC card user. We then have to continue driving quite far before we can make an exit. Here, it wasted our time a lot.
Stop to rest along the way
Before we can walk to the waterfall, it's late evening already. The sun starts to go behind the mountain although it's only 4 p.m. but looks more like 5 or 6 p.m. in Thailand.
Leaves at Fukiware Fall also has yet changed much color and when there's no sun, I didn't quite get photos I wished for.
In fact, today there is a program to get on a cable car and stop by two famous Onsen in Gunma Prefecture too. For taking pictures, forget about it, because having to drive for about an hour, the light will be all gone by the time we reach there. But friends want to soak in the hot springs, so we continue on to Takaragawa Onsen (location 36.84788, 139.04776) in the darkness because this Onsen is situated in the mountains of Gunma ... But then, we are disappointed again when found that Onsen has already closed and thus all we can do is driving back Karuizawa..
The next morning, the weather is much colder than yesterday, so there is frost on the top of the grass near our accommodation. The morning sky is still clear but the weather forecast said that it will rain in the afternoon..... I can only pray that it is not accurate. Because today we will travel to Kamikochi, one of the highlights of this trip for me.
Today we still drive the same rental car. I enter the Sawando name which is the bus stop where we would board to visit Kamikochi into the GPS....Then, the Sawando Station pops up, we then start our journey immediately. It takes about 3 hours to reach our destination crossing mountains and Matsumoto city towards the side of Japan Alps. Since Kamikochi doesn't allow a private car to drive up, we have to either take a public bus or a local taxi only. We can park our private car at the Sawando bus stop.
We choose to drive on a regular route, not the expressway. The distance is even closer but due to red lights along small villages causing us quite a time. However, the view along the way is definitely more beautiful than the one on the expressway....
The closer we to our destination, the darker the sky. Yet, I see more leaves changing color which has increased my hope of seeing full color change at Kamikochi.
After going through Matsumoto for a while, the GPS told us that we only a few km away from our destination which makes me quite puzzled. From my research, this route is in a valley and there's hardly any big cities. I then quickly open my mobile phone and search again...I almost faint. We have come on a wrong way. Sawando station and Sawando bus stop are two different locations. The right one is 60 km away from here and since we need to drive through mountains, it would take about 2 more hours!
No choice, we follow what Google Map suggest as it's the closest route....This route cuts through mountains where leaves are changing color very beautifully. Unfortunately, we can only stop for photography twice because we have wasted a lot of time already....
We reach the bus stop at around 1 p.m. which is 2 hours later than planned. We looked for a restaurant for a while before finding one which seems to be one of a few shops that are open today.....After ordering lunch, we discuss that taking bus would cost us a lot of time as the bus run on schedule......Then, we see that the owner of this noodle shop can communicate some English so we ask her help to talk to a taxi driver. We want to take his taxi back and forth and wish to stop along the way too at some important spots....Probably today is not a holiday, not many tourists, so the taxi driver agrees to only charge the round trip fee without additional charge of stopping and waiting time fee....Actually, taking a taxi is faster and saver because each trip on the bus is 1,000 JPY, we 5 would have to pay 5,000 JPY for just a one way trip while we only have to pay 4,200 JPY for a round trip taxi.
Atmosphere of Sawando near the entrance to Kamikochi is so breathtakingly beautiful..... Tourists can park their cars here in order to either take a bus or a taxi.
After lunch, we leave our car with this restaurant. The parking fee is 600 JPY which is similar to other restaurants' fee nearby.
Taxi gradually takes us through a path surrounded by mountains. Both sides now witness leaves fully changing color. This route is going along a stream and from time to time we will see waterfall falling into this stream which is so beautiful. Unfortunately, due to the rain, it's not so convenient taking photos from a taxi.....The driver seems to know us well, he tries to pull over wherever he can to allow us to take photos. However, due to heavy rain, we can only take few photos.
Soon, we reach to the point of going up towards Kamikochi. From here, only bus, taxi, and local vehicles are allowed.... Our taxi slowly drives through narrow street and tunnels here and there. Both sides are the most speechless beautiful scenery and of course, leaves are changing color in just the right amount.
Taxi stops for us to take photos again at Taisho Pond which is a giant pond surrounded by golden yellow pine trees. There is a high mountain backdrop where leaves are changing color as well.
After that, a taxi takes us further on. I and one of my friends choose to get off at Teikoku bus stop so that we can take photos along Azusa River until we reach Kappabashi. For women and children, we let the taxi drop them at the tourist service center as we are afraid that they could get sick from the rain.
We walk from the bus stop to Tashiro bride going across Azusa River … From here, we simply walk along the river......In fact, I want to spend longer time since the view in front of me simply speechlessly beautiful despite the rain, a big obstacle to photography. Anyhow, at that moment, I just couldn't resist but taking my camera out and capture the scene along with my feeling at the time in a memory.
We walk quite fast, going along the river until we reach Kappa Bridge, one of the landmarks of Kamikochi. Due to the rain and thick fog, we are unable to clearly see the peak which is the highlight here. However, I have to say that Kamikochi is so beautiful that I promise myself I must come back here again.
We reach the tourist service center near the Kappa Bridge just about the time we deal with the taxi... Then, we travel back down and drive back to Karuizawa.
Actually, today we planned to visit Hirayu Onsen which is not so far away too. But since we wasted a lot of time as we were lost earlier, we have to cut this program out and go back to Karuizawa directly.....On the way back, I choose to drive on the expressway due to it's already dark, otherwise, we would have to drive in dark and spend about 4-5 hours on the road. It would be both slow and dangerous.... Driving on the expressway allows us to return the car on time at 8 p.m.
Despite some obstacles along the trip, I'm not disappointed a bit from what I've experienced. So tonight is another well sleep night.
The next day, after checking out, me and my friend's family will be separated. I will go to Nikko and they will go to Tokyo on which we will meet again two days later in Tokyo....For the first part of leaves changing color, I'd like to end it here. See you guys again in my next episode with a full color change of leaves at Nikko.
Before ending the review, here are my other channels of work: